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Hearts Of Fire: Fantasies And The Future Part 18

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Ava couldn't help it. She giggled.

Byron responded by grabbing her arm and hauling her out of the car, his face dark with fury. 'What in hell's happened to you?' he snarled. 'Has this bastard corrupted you so much that you've lost all sense of decency? Don't you care he's going to marry another woman, or that he's got the morals of an alley-cat? I hope you don't think he loves you. Men like him make silly women like you pay for the privilege of their professional expertise. It won't be long before he starts asking you for money, you mark my words!'

Byron never saw the blow coming. Vince's fist was like greased lightning and a second later Byron was a crumpled mess on the gravel. Ava gasped and dropped to her knees beside her brother, her hands frantic on his face. 'You've killed him,' she cried.

'Not quite,' Vince said, rubbing at his reddened knuckles as Byron made a moaning sound. 'But I'd have liked to. God, what a pompous puritanical pain your brother is. How you turned out so sensible and broad-minded, I have no idea. You must take after another branch of the family.

'But I like him,' he suddenly grinned, making Ava gasp with surprise. 'I would have done exactly the same if you'd been my sister. The ogre cares about you, Ava, and that speaks for a lot in my book. Here, help me get him up over my shoulder and I'll take him inside. He'll be coming round shortly. And stop worrying. He might have a sore jaw later and a bit of a headache but no lasting damage.



'Hell, but he's a big bloke,' he muttered as he carried Byron inside and laid him down on the very same leather sofa he'd put Ava on that first day. 'Perhaps you'd better get him some ice to put on his jaw, Ava. A couple of painkillers and a drink of water might be in order too.'

When a groggy Byron started coming round a minute later and saw Vince sitting in a chair opposite him, he went to sit up, only to groan and slump back down on the pillows.

'Good idea,' Vince pronounced sternly. 'Now lie there and listen. First, let's get a few things straight. One. . .1 did not make a pass at Catherine Gateshead; neither have I slept with any female except a discreet number of girlfriends who all knew the score. Secondly, I no longer mow lawns.

Mowing Ava's lawn was a one- off thing. When she rang to hire someone for the following day there was no one free, but she sounded such a nice lady and so worried sick that her big ogre of a brother might start belly-aching over the bloody lawns, that I did her a special favour.'

Byron made a scoffing sound.

'Shut up and listen for once!' Vince commanded.

An impressed Ava used this short break in proceedings to hand Byron a tea-towel wrapped around some ice cubes. 'Put this on your chin,' she whispered. 'It's beginning to swell. . .'

His doing as she suggested in a rather dazed, almost bewildered fashion moved her to pity. Poor Byron, he really doesn't know what's hit him, either with Vince or her own changed self.

'That's how Ava and I met,' Vince explained, thankfully not mentioning her fall that day. 'We hit it off straight away. I did not seduce her. She did not proposition me. We became friends first. I recognised her artistic ability and introduced her to Giuseppe Belcomo, who's a master at recognising and fostering true talent. You can check him out too, if you like. Last night was the first time Ava and I made love. The first time,' he hit home. 'I respect and admire your sister very much, Byron. I'm sorry I slugged you but I could not stand by and have you belittle her. Or me for that matter, for when you belittle me, you belittle her.'

Ava squeezed her eyes tightly shut against the wave of emotion crashing through her. She had never had anyone stand up for her like this and it was. . . incredible.

'Finally, I do not need or want your sister's money. I have enough of my own and if you don't believe me, then by all means check up on that too. I'm a qualified engineer. I own and run Morelli Constructions, which specialises in building quality apartment blocks all over Sydney. We've been so busy and successful this past year that I haven't even been out with a woman in months!

'Last but not least, let me give you a word of warning about Catherine Gateshead. She is a coldly ambitious evil bitch who will do anything to get what she wants. But she is at her most dangerous when crossed. Her vicious lies after I knocked her back caused our family company to lose many clients. I'm not saying she isn't beautiful, but, before you even think of marrying her, check out her other three husbands.'

'Three?' Byron gasped. 'I thought she'd only had the one.'

'There've been three. Believe me.'

'Good lord. . .' He appeared to mull over this information before decidedly sharper blue eyes snapped up again. 'What about your being engaged?'

Vince sighed. 'My mother has a problem with the way I conduct my private life. Lately, she's been telling any girl who rings me that I'm either engaged or about to become engaged to a nice little Italian girl. Obviously, she's started saying the same to their brothers.'

'I see. . .' He glanced over at Ava, who was perched on the arm of a chair near by, doing her best to remain composed under a whole range of emotions. 'I. . .I only ever had your best interests at heart, love, but I can see now I've been a very misguided brother as well as a highly inadequate guardian. I'm sorry. Forgive me?' he asked, his voice breaking.

Ava came forward and squatted down next to the sofa, smiling at him through suddenly blurred eyes. 'I always knew you loved me,' she said. 'We'll put the past behind us and go forward.'

A type of puzzlement filled Byron's eyes. 'You've changed so much. I can hardly believe it's my little Ava I'm talking to.'

'It's me all right.'

Vince tapped her on the shoulder. 'Ava, why don't you go and freshen up? Change into something a little more casual. I'd like to take you home with me. If you'd like to come, that is. . .'

Ava turned, eyes blinking with surprise. 'You want me to meet your family?'

'Yes, I do.'

She wanted to ask if he took home all the women he slept with him but decided not to push her luck. 'OK,' she said brightly. 'I'll go freshen up.'

Byron watched his sister leave, then frowned at this man who'd worked this miraculous transformation. 'She loves you. You do know that, don't you?'

'Yes.'

'And what are your feelings for her?'

Vince frowned and sat back down. 'Well, it's like this, Byron. . .'

Ava tripped back downstairs, having happily found that her clever clothes for biggies were so clever that they looked good on not-so-biggies too. The elastic waists shrank to fit, the jackets even more slimming when they hung a little more loosely. But she was looking forward to buying herself a pair of jeans in the near future. And who knew? Maybe one day she'd squeeze into a bodysuit. But for now she was wearing the outfit Vince had first seen her in.

Vince and Byron were sitting together having coffee when she returned to the family-room, looking for all the world like the best of friends. Ava was astonished and must have looked as much when she entered, for Byron threw her a reassuring smile.

'Don't worry, love,' he said. 'No pistols at dawn. Vince and I have come to an understanding.'

Her laugh was slightly nervous. 'You mean I won't be told not to darken this doorstep again?'

'Of course not. You make me sound like an ogre!'

Ava was trying not to laugh while Vince guided her from the house and saw her into the passenger seat of the Mazda, though behind her suppressed humour was a type of shock.

'I think that knock on the jaw must have rattled Byron's brain,' she commented as Vince climbed in behind the wheel. 'I just can't understand his attitude towards you. I mean. . .his accepting his little sister's lover so quickly and warmly is just not Byron!'

'Well, there is an explanation for that,' Vince said.

Ava frowned back at him. 'Would you mind sharing it with me?'

His glance carried an irony Ava found totally confusing.

'Remember last night when you said you would be my lover for as long as I wanted you?' he asked quietly.

'Yes. . .' Everything inside her squeezed tight. So this was it. He was going to say he didn't want her any more.

'Did you mean it?'

'What?'

He swivelled in the seat to face her, his own face surprisingly strained. 'Did you mean it?' he ground out.

'Of course I meant it! I don't say things I don't mean. What are you trying to say?'

'What I'm trying to say, Ava, is that I do want you. . .for forever. . .'

'For forever?' she repeated blankly.

'Yes. I want to marry you.'

Ava's stunned silence brought a frown after a short while.

'You don't want to marry me?' he said in a pained voice.

'Yes. No. I mean I. . .1 -'

'Look, I know I said I didn't have the time for a commitment or even a real relationship,' he cut in forcefully, 'but that was before I realised I loved you.'

'You love me,' she whispered, her face on the verge of crumpling.

His eyes melted all over her. 'Madly.'

'Oh,' she squeaked, her whole vocal cords having seemed to seize up.

'I was worried all along that I was falling in love with you, but last night when Nathan was being appalling to you, and then this morning when Byron started on at you. . .well, I just knew I loved you, Ava, because I wanted to kill him with my bare hands.'

'You' love me,' she said again, still dazed and disbelieving.

'God, yes. How could I help but love you? You're so special. And your brand of loving is so special. I know I'll never find its equal anywhere in this world and if I let you go I'd be the biggest fool in this world. I thought of asking you to live with me, but I realised I was right the first time. You're the sort of woman a man has to marry because nothing less is worthy of the beautiful person you are.'

"But. . .but you said you didn't have the time. . .'

'I'll make time. To hell with being a multi-millionaire. I'll have to settle for being a simple millionaire. I'll build you a house, darling. Any house you want.'

'But I. . .I wouldn't mind living in the penthouse for a while.'

'Done! You can have carte blanche on the decor and the furnishings. You can even convert part of it to a studio, if you'd like. You can have anything you want!'

Ava bit both her lips in an effort not to cry. 'I've only ever really wanted you.' And she burst into tears.

Vince groaned and gathered her in, holding her and stroking her hair. 'Oh, God, darling, you make me feel so humble. I've been such a bloody fool. All those things I said to you. I'm not really wicked with women. Well, not lately. . .except with you, of course. . . You bring out the worst -and perhaps the best -in me.'

He kissed away her tears and Ava thought she would die from happiness.

'So you will marry me?' he murmured.

She nodded and he kissed her again.

'Shouldn't we go back inside and tell Byron?' Ava asked some time later. 'He might be relieved you're going to make an honest woman out of his sister.'

He already knows,' Vince astonished her by saying. 'While you were upstairs, I asked him for your hand in marriage. He said to tell you that he wishes you every happiness and he'll pay for the wedding.'

'Oh, my goodness. Byron said that?'

'He did. Of course he didn't realise what he was agreeing to. Even a half -Italian wedding is enough to set the father of the bride -or substitute -back a pretty penny. I live in terror of my sister making a similar announcement."

'Don't worry, Vince, Byron can afford it. He recently sold an opal for two million dollars.'

'No kidding! I didn't realise opals were that expensive.'

'This one was. It was called the Heart of Fire.'

'Aren't opals supposed to be unlucky?'

'That's an old wives' tale, though that particular one has a long history of scandals and secrets behind it.'

'You'll have to tell me the whole story one day, but as of now I think we should make tracks for the Morelli residence. You're about to make my mother's day,'

'Even though I'm not a nice little Italian girl?' Ava remarked a little nervously.

Vince's smile was so tender, Ava almost burst into tears again. 'My mother is going to adore you,' he murmured. 'My whole family is going to adore you, because you're simply adorable, don't you know that? Now let's get going. Our future awaits!'

end.

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Hearts Of Fire: Fantasies And The Future Part 18 summary

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